When Xenophobia Trumps Common Sense, Common Decency Often Goes By the Wayside

Sign warning drivers of pedestrian crossing in Southern California along U.S.-Mexico border.

I’ve written here before about the dilemma Washington Apple Growers were faced with in 2011 because of crack downs on undocumented immigrants. It turns out that the majority of documented immigrants who answered a poll by saying that undocumented immigrants mostly take low wage jobs that no one wants are right. No amount of recruitment was able to produce enough American-born workers to replace immigrants who were scared out of the fields, and what should have been one of the best years on record for the Washington apple industry ended up being a bust. Farmers in Georgia and Alabama have also been affected, with some even fearing the loss of their farms.

As Congress contemplates immigration reform, we should remember the plight of Washington apple growers. Immigration crack downs are bad for industry, especially agriculture. And the effects are even more far reaching. When apples rot on trees in Washington, farmers and pickers are obviously affected. But so are fruit brokers and distributors. The truckers who transport crops from field to market also feel the pinch. Factories that freeze, dry, process, juice, and sauce apples don’t have enough product. Business owners and employees of stores where those planters, pickers, brokers, truckers, and processors shop also take it in the wallet. And apple grower profits that would have stayed in the U.S. go to places like Chile, New Zealand, and Canada that are, in order, the largest sources of imported apples in the U.S. So, ironically, in order to crack down on undocumented immigration in the U.S., we find ourselves hurting American farmers to the benefit of foreign competitors.

And we’re doing all of this to serve the baseless fear that immigrants will drain our economy and promote lawlessness. The irrational fearfulness driving this debate becomes all the more apparent when you consider a couple of other statistics I’ve often cited. Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the U.S. after Canada and China. Money sent home by Mexican immigrants is Mexico’s number two source of foreign income after oil exports, making undocumented Mexican immigrants an important economic engine of a major trading partner.

But, irrationality isn’t the worst of it. The anti-immigrant vitriol of those on the right has been so effective at dehumanizing Mexican immigrants in the minds of conservatives that those on the left have been forced to support humane immigration reform with arguments like the one I just made here in which people are reduced to units of productivity, dollars and cents. It’s as though all that ought to matter to us in this debate is our economic self-interest defined in the most cynical terms.

What’s at stake in this debate is much more than just whether or not immigrants are good for our economy. This debate is a matter of human rights and human decency. This is about whether or not we can look into the face of another human being and see ourselves in them, and then do the right thing even if it does cost us something.

Instead, concern about the common good and common decency have gone out the window. For that reason, our elected leaders are using our tax dollars to haggle over how tight or high the hoops and hurdles will be in a citizenship process that looks more like an obstacle course than a “path.” On that course, immigrants may find themselves subjected to a decade or more as vulnerable and exploited guest workers. They will be required to learn English and live up to a citizenship standard most natural born citizens never achieve. And, it appears, the policy we settle on might still deport immigrants for reasons having nothing to do with them and everything to do with whether or not Immigration Control and Enforcement is able to secure our Southern border. An even more militarized border, which is what it looks like we may end up with, is the very essence of the affront to human rights that is our current immigration policy.

Perhaps worst of all, we allow our elected leaders and ourselves to blatantly discuss not really meeting the human needs of immigrants as nothing more than a bargaining chip in a cynical game for power and control. When you talk about people like that, you might as well refer to them as illegal because you’re not regarding them as human.

Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

6 replies on “When Xenophobia Trumps Common Sense, Common Decency Often Goes By the Wayside”

“This is about whether or not we can look into the face of another human being and see ourselves in them, and then do the right thing even if it does cost us something.” This statement is profound and it is TRUTH. Thank you (as always).

Excellent points Scot. I always find it depressing that the only pro-immigration argument many are willing to listen to are the ones that explain what’s in it for US citizens – “What’s in it for me?”
The argument of freedom of movement, dignity and respect seems to fall on deaf ears.

Very good article. I live in Arizona and have for the full 29 years of my life, so I am well aware of the immigration debate and the controversy surrounding it. I have watched my state go from bad to worse politically, and from uncaring to heartless in the immigration debate. Thankfully things are beginning to change here for the better slowly but surely. I was involved in the recall of State Senator Russell Pearce an infamous right wing anti-immigrant bigot among being anti a number of other groups. Thankfully we succeeded, everyone told us he was untouchable in Arizona politics, well we proved them wrong. I support a humane immigration policy that puts human beings first ahead of economics and politics. I see this new attempt at comprehensive immigration policy as giving into the right way too much.

Waiting a decade to be given citizenship or more, basically making them second class citizens for a decade. Having to pay fines and back taxes, putting citizenship out of reach for many living below the poverty line. Turning our border into a Nazi or Berlin Wall checkpoint and into a militarized zone. Making them learn English and pass Citizenship test among other test that no other American has to take. Making so many things disqualify them from becoming citizens. Making it so easy to deport them on the slightest violation. No this is not humane this is inhumanity wrapped up in the term of reform. The same as calling the Patriot Act patriotic. The GOP and Tea Party have ruined immigration reform and the Democratic Party has been complicit. The only solution is mass protest and political activism demanding a more humane comprehensive immigration policy then the one offered currently. I will be there in that fight I can guarantee you.

Comments are closed.